Goodbye, Princess Leia

Many years ago when I first heard of the death of Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, I was sad.

Not crushed, but of course sad that he had died so unexpectedly and at a relatively young age.

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The Star-Studded Couple Blogathon: Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh

This post is part of the Star-Studded Couple Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Read the rest of the posts for this event HERE!

Janet Leigh had what seemed a very charmed career. With zero acting experience, she had been discovered by actress Norma Shearer, who showed agent Lew Wasserman a picture of a young girl she had seen while vacationing at a ski resort. Wasserman obtained for Leigh a contract at MGM. She debuted in the film The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was a big hit. Her career stumbled a bit when a couple of film projects she was involved in were shelved, but soon got back on track with a role in the 1949 version of Little Women. She went on to an incredibly varied career, playing roles in an array of genres and for some of the most famous directors of the time, including Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Continue reading “The Star-Studded Couple Blogathon: Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh”

Pop Culture Roundup September 2013

sleepyhollow1. New hits are already emerging from the Fall TV season. Sleepy Hollow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Blacklist and The Crazy Ones were the first of the new series to break from the pack. Sleepy Hollow has already been renewed for a second season and The Blacklist has a full season order. And several shows haven’t even premiered yet!

2. Harry Potter is back! Without Harry Potter! It was announced that JK Rowling is writing a series of screenplay adaptations of her Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It will return to the Harry Potter universe, reportedly 70 years before the action of the original books. Nice to see my Twitter feed light up with JOY instead of ire for a change.

3. #DiversityInSFF Twitter hashtag takes off. Author Jim C. Hines started a Twitter hashtag to discuss diversity in science fiction and fantasy. Subjects as, well, diverse as panel parity and accessibility issues at conventions, creating believable alien cultures in science fiction, racial and gender stereotyping, fantasy books not based on European culture and history, and book recommendations are only a small sampling of what was covered. The conversation was fascinating and caught the attention of some news outlets, including The Nation and the U.K.’s The Guardian. Because of the Twitter discussion, Tor Publications updated their guidelines to emphasize they are interested in submissions with more diversity. The hashtag is still in use, do go check it out (and contribute!), as well as #DiversityInYA, which discusses diversity in young adult fiction.

mahershalali4. Speaking of diversity in young adult fiction: hooray for those making the casting decisions for the final two Hunger Games movies, Mockingjay 1 & 2! It is shaping up to be an even more diverse cast than the books. Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, The 4400) was cast as fan-favorite Boggs, and Patina Miller as Commander Payler. Boggs casting was the subject of MUCH fan speculation and several African American and Latino actors were suggested, including Terrence Howard and Esai Morales. Although Ali wasn’t on most fans’ radars, many welcomed the choice. When the fantabulous Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) was cast as Commander Lyme, many speculated they would combine her character with that of Commander Payler. Instead they cast relative unknown Miller. Along with the news that Julianne Moore was cast as President Coin, it made September a great month for the fandom.

5. Um, except for the crappy stunt E! News pulled on us. The E! Network announced on Twitter they would be showing NEW footage from Catching Fire that night. And . . . they lied. They forced Hunger Games fans to sit through 1 ½ hours of Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and Fashion Week news as it slowly dawned on us that all they had was an old interview of Sam Claflin everyone had already seen on the internet. Hey, news outlets: don’t piss off fandoms. Let’s just say if they ever institute giving cable and satellite subscribers a choice of channels, E! is the first one Hunger Games fans will drop.

breakingbadfinale6. The finale of Breaking Bad broke records. I will write a separate post about my thoughts on the final season of Breaking Bad, but the ratings for the finale are notable because they increased over 400% from the finale of Season 4. It was over 10 million viewers compared to 1.9 million. That’s freakin’ AMAZING. And it was due almost entirely to people getting up to speed with Netflix binge-watching. Emphasizing how we watch television is undergoing a significant revolution and will probably impact network decisions on how long to give a series a chance to find its audience.

7. Dear Food Network: maybe Cupcake Wars has seen its best days. I like the show, it’s a fun competition, with four teams of cupcake bakers vying to serve their product at an important media event. However, this season has seen so many repeat contestants from the past it’s starting to look slightly hilarious. One team of bakers was on for the FOURTH time (and, surprise!—they lost AGAIN). Obviously, there’s a finite number of cupcake bakers in this land. Time for Pie Wars, maybe?

8. The Emmy Awards really dropped the ball on their memorial tributes. Yes, I know—it’s not possible to give a special tribute to ALL who passed away over the past year. But it was stunning that they left out a special tribute to Larry Hagman, who played one of the most iconic characters on television, J.R. Ewing. They didn’t even have the excuse that a new generation was unaware of him, since the Dallas reboot is recent, ongoing, and successful. There was also complaining over the omission of Jack Klugman. Some were also incensed that Cory Monteith was included, considering he was so young and died from a drug overdose. It’s a difficult call, no question, but if you’re going to do it, find a way to do it right.

gravity-sandra-bullock9. The Toronto Film Festival debuted several supposed Oscar contenders—and some actually sound like they are amazing. In fact, I saw one today—Gravity—and it IS amazing, on every level. (See it and see it in 3D—yes, it’s worth it and no, the 3D is not a gimmick.) Others possible Best Picture contenders are 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Dallas Buyers Club. There’s buzz that James Gandolfini may be nominated posthumously for Enough Said, and that the Best Actor category may have more African-American actors in contention than any other year in Oscar history. Best Actress is also shaping up to be an incredibly competitive category, with Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench (for Philomena) looking like shoe-ins. This may be one year “Oscar-bait” movies turn out to be just plain “must-see” movies.

10. Technically, this is October news, but I feel the need to acknowledge the passing of author Tom Clancy. Espionage thrillers are not my personal cup of tea, but there’s no question Tom Clancy left a huge impact on both the publishing and movie worlds. (I actually quite like the movie version of The Hunt for Red October.) For writers, he’s a huge inspiration because he was rejected 50 times before the Navy published his first book. A sad loss, and one that happened much too soon.

Goodbye To Katherine Chancellor, Soap Opera’s Greatest Diva

katherinechancellorThis week the soap opera The Young and the Restless will begin the memorial service for the character of Katherine Chancellor, the show’s “grande dame” for the last 40 years. Her portrayer, Jeanne Cooper, passed away last May. The death of Cooper and the necessary death of her character (though briefly replaced during her tenure a couple of times, a permanent recast was unthinkable) leaves not only a huge hole in the show, but soaps as a whole, and maybe television as well.

Every soap has to have a “grande dame,” but they never saw one quite like Katherine Chancellor. Most of them fall into one of two categories. The first is The Perfect Mom Everyone Wants To Have, i.e. Nancy Hughes of As The World Turns, Maeve Ryan of Ryan’s Hope, Alice Horton of Days Of Our Lives. The second is the Bored Busybody Who Interferes With Everyone’s Love Life, i.e. Phoebe Wallingford of All My Children or Aunt Liz Matthews on Another World.

Katherine was rich, and she was a mother, but she was far from perfect (in fact, she was beautifully flawed) and usually too concerned with her own love life to butt into what other people were up to.

When she first appeared on Y&R 40 years ago, she was a rich, married alcoholic who couldn’t keep her hands off the stable boys. Into the mix entered her soon-to-be life-long nemesis, Jill Foster, a poor and ambitious girl Katherine hired as her companion. Soon her husband Phillip was in love with Jill and seeking a divorce.

What was fascinating at the time (yes, I am old enough to remember the original episodes—though I was, of course, a mere CHILD) was how Katherine never quite evolved into the villain that the writers of the show perhaps initially wanted her to become. Even though she was imperious and did things that would seem to excuse Phillip’s unfaithfulness (i.e. her own affairs with employees) somehow Cooper made you understand that it came from a deep loneliness and despair. I remember having far more sympathy for Katherine, even though I was young and perhaps should have identified more with Jill.

What was really different about her—I would even say unique—was the way she fought against the idea that women should quietly retire to a shelf once they reached their 40s. This was hardly an unusual storyline—for instance, on All My Children Phoebe fought for years against her husband Charles’ wish for a divorce to marry his secretary Mona. But it was not because she demanded love and passion from Charles—it was because the divorce would upset her position in society.

Unlike Phoebe, Katherine fought against the idea that she was OVER as far as society was concerned as anything more than a society matron. She still wanted the love and the passion. For 40 years, she never stopped looking for both. She fell in love frequently, and with partners who could be seen a “inappropriate”—several of Jill’s beaus, a gigolo here and there, a Latin American revolutionary who rescued her from drowning.

The show even once briefly toyed with the idea of Katherine falling in love with another of her female companions, but they yanked that faster than you can say, “Next, on The Young and the Restless.” (I still crack up when I remember the horrified and indignant way Joanne, her supposed object of love, reacted when Brock, Katherine’s hippie-evangelical preacher son, brought up the subject.) Her final love, Murph, is a blue-collar sweetie who adored her but seems completely out of place in her opulent mansion.

She also fought against aging, most famously having a face lift, which Jeanne Cooper had in real life and was broadcast as part of the show. Another way character and actress paralleled was how both never retired, staying involved in work almost until the end of their long lives, though of course Katherine had many to help her do the heavy lifting.

The primary relationship in Katherine’s life was her rivalry with Jill, which carried on longer probably than any in television history. They fought over men, they fought over whether or not Katherine killed Phillip Chancellor, they fought over Jill’s son by Phillip, they fought over business. They fought over ownership of the mansion, half of which was eventually awarded to Jill in a lawsuit, so they were forced to live together for years under the same roof.

A new headwriting team got the rather dumb idea to make them long-lost mother and daughter (rescinded by a subsequent headwriter) which changed the dynamic of the relationship, though admittedly not in an entirely negative way. Something always remained under the surface from their initial positive relationship, and now that Katherine is gone, Jill is somewhat lost, both because she ended up loving her and because she still needs the conflict they generated with each other.

I had stopped watching The Young and the Restless for a few years and only started up again a few months ago—I’m so glad I did. I got to see Cooper’s last months, and her final, almost chillingly prescient scene. Home from the hospital after having a brain tumor removed, Jill asked if she needed help getting up the stairs. Katherine refused, then turned around and said (unscripted, according to the writers) “Good night.”

Good night Katherine. Good night, Jeanne. It was a fabulous 40 years.

Pop Culture Roundup for August 2013

Ben Affleck speaking at a rally for Feed Ameri...
Ben Affleck speaking at a rally for Feed America in 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Batfleck: The casting announcement of Ben Affleck as the new Batman was the BIG news—if you’re a fan of superhero comics, probably the ONLY news of note. While on the one hand, I understand some of the concern (as well as the anger, hysteria, hilarity and sarcasm) I also think everyone needs to take a deep breath and give Ben Affleck a chance.

Yes, he’s been sucky in some sucky movies—what actor hasn’t?  But he’s also been really good in some really good movies. If you’ve never seen the film Hollywoodland, I recommend it. Not only because it’s SO underrated, but Affleck gives a stellar performance as the conflicted, troubled (sound familiar?) actor who portrayed the most famous superhero of them all, Superman, on TV during the 1950s.

It’s also worth noting that many people had negative reactions to Michael Keaton as Batman, and Heath Ledger as The Joker.

joe-stumpo-10242. Speaking of Michael Keaton: Did anyone else catch the HBO movie Clear History with Larry David? The story is about a man who loses out on cashing in when the company he worked for releases an electric car that takes the nation by storm. Years later, he unexpectedly gets an opportunity for revenge against his ex-boss. It’s a cute riff on Larry David’s already very familiar persona. Not a great movie, but fun, sort of like a stop-gap until the next elusive season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The best part? An almost-unrecognizable Michael Keaton in a supporting role. He’s hilarious. It was such a joy to realize it was him and think “Hooray, someone gave him a JOB!”

Hollywood really needs to make more use of one of our great comic actors. Maybe Tim Burton can stop making bad remakes of cult TV shows and do a Beetlejuice sequel with Keaton instead.

breaking_bad_5.08__span3. Breaking Bad. O.M.G.—BREAKING BAD!!! The first three of the final eight episodes KILLED IT. (Excuse the pun.) The end game is probably the trickiest part of writing and producing a popular TV series. I don’t care if they screw everything up in the final five episodes—these three episodes have already done justice to the entire series. (According to tweets from the actors, they didn’t screw it up, so, phew.)

4. But I’m glad the (in some cases) sexist vitriol against the character of Skyler is finally being addressed. Actress Anna Gunn wrote an op-ed piece about how some fans are not only saying horrible things about the character, SHE (the actress, not the character) has even received death threats. TV critic Maureen Ryan wrote another article on the subject, claiming Gunn didn’t go far enough.

While Skyler was underwritten during the first few seasons, in my opinion the writers eventually turned her into almost as nuanced and complex a character as Walt. Gunn has been magnificent throughout. I can understand how not everyone would care for the character and her dynamic within the story. But some of the hatred has been totally over the top. And it’s insane that any of those feelings would spill over to the actress.

To be clear, I don’t believe all of the anger at the character is solely due to her gender. In anti-hero stories, it’s often difficult to remember that we’re watching an ANTI-hero, not a hero-hero. Readers and viewers sort of make a devil’s bargain by agreeing to go on this ride with the bad guy as protagonist, and after a while can’t help but root for him to succeed.

David Chase, who created The Sopranos, has said that he would have Tony do terrible things just to remind the audience that he wasn’t the hero/good guy. And some fans resented the reminder. I think some fans resent how Skyler reminds the audience that Walt is not a hero/good guy.

5. I did not watch the VMA awards. I can’t comment. But, WOW, Twitter really exploded, and as of this writing, is still exploding. Just from the few photos of the event that I’ve seen, I’m glad I missed it.

divergent-still6. However, I did not miss seeing the first full-length movie trailer for Divergent, the dystopian thriller some think will be the next The Hunger Games. It won’t be. I’ve read the first two books, and they’re good, but not on quite the same level.

However, this movie has a lot going for it: as with The Hunger Games movies, the star (Shailene Woodley) is an already-Oscar nominated, up-and-coming critic’s darling. She may not turn out to be another Jennifer Lawrence, but there’s no doubt she’s good. Divergent also benefits from having the incomparable Kate Winslet in the role of the story’s villain. The trailer looks good—they did a great job of recreating author Veronica Roth’s vision of a dystopian Chicago. It should do well, just not be the same kind of phenomenon as The Hunger Games.

7. Sad to say, another YA adaptation, The Mortal Instruments, did not fare well at the box office. Personally, I couldn’t get into the book, but the series is very popular. Possibly the problem is that urban fantasy does better on television than on the big screen. (Twilight is the obvious exception.) I hope this doesn’t mean Hollywood is put off making more YA adaptations—there are still many good ones deserving of a movie treatment.

natalie8. SQUEEEE!!! Casting for the final two Hunger Games movies (Mockingjay 1 & 2) has started. And, boy, it really started with a bang, with Natalie Dormer (The Tudors, Game of Thrones) cast as Cressida. Nerds across both Panem and the Seven Kingdoms were ecstatic. I have to admit I didn’t care for her interpretation of Anne Boleyn, but my opinion of her acting has totally flipped since she’s been playing the ambitious and sweetly devious Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones.

Also, the character of Annie Cresta has been cast with Australian actress Stef Dawson. She looks perfect for the part and it’s great they went with an unknown. She must have been quite overwhelmed to see her Twitter following increase ten-fold within a few hours of the announcement.

9. NBC is turning the movie Reality Bites into a series. Full disclosure: I once applied for a job as a script reader at New Line Cinema during the early 1990s. They gave me two scripts to cover as an “audition” for the job. One was Reality Bites.

I gave it a pass.

During the interview, they made it clear to me that Reality Bites was a screenplay they had been anxious to buy (another studio got it).

Needless to say, I did not get the job.

I admit I was thrilled when the movie tanked at the box office.

Why, oh WHY would they want to make a TV series out of a movie that was neither a success in its time nor a cult favorite now?

They might as well just remake Friends.

(Dear NBC: I was kidding about remaking Friends. Please don’t do it.)

getshorty10. Finally, we lost one of the great genre writers of this and the 20th Century. Elmore Leonard passed away at the age of 87. His influence on not only the crime genre, but movies as well, can’t be overstated. Few could rival him when it came to dialogue. He also wrote some fantastic Western stories (the most famous became the two movie versions of 3:10 To Yuma). He was also one of the best at melding comedy with crime drama.

Pick up an Elmore Leonard book, you will enjoy it. One of my favorites is The Switch. Or, watch the movie Get Shorty. I never get tired of hearing Chili Palmer (John Travolta) saying, “Look at me.”

In fact, I think I’m going to download one of his books to my Kindle right now.

My Favorite Celebrity Memoirs

pennymarshallI really enjoy reading memoirs written by actors. I find them a fascinating insight into the movie industry and the joys, frustrations and tragedies associated with what is seen as a glamorous profession. I also enjoy listening to the audio versions of these autobiographies, because many of them are voiced by the author. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. My Mother Was Nuts, by Penny Marshall – Marshall is almost painfully honest when talking about her upbringing in the Bronx and her acting and directing career. She bends over backwards (maybe a tad too much) to give her co-star Cindy Williams a fair shake when recounting her controversial exit from Laverne & Shirley. Most interesting to me were the sections about her career as a director, something she almost treats off-handedly, never making a big deal out of the fact that she was the first financially successful woman director since the silent era. She also takes the supposed end of her film directing career in stride (acknowledging that Hollywood no longer makes the kind of films she wants to direct) though she still occasionally directs television projects. Funny, touching and oh, that voice just makes the audio version!

2. My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, by Sissy Spacek – of all the books on this list, this one is less about an acting career and more a memoir about what it was like to grow up in Texas during the 50s and 60s. In that sense, it was slightly disappointing to me, because she has worked with some of the most interesting directors and actors around. She does go into great detail about filming her first leading role in director Terrence Mallick’s first  masterpiece, Badlands, which is utterly fascinating. I was surprised to find out that music was her first ambition, which made her perfect to play Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, a role she resisted taking at first. While I enjoyed the tales of her family, childhood and adolescence (some quite haunting and sad), I would have liked details about more of her various film roles.

3. I Am Spartacus!, by Kirk Douglas – Douglas’ first memoir, The Ragman’s Son, should be on the reading list of anyone interested in actors autobiographies—it’s truly outstanding. In this book, he zeroes in on one particular event in his life: his efforts as a producer to get the film Spartacus made, at the height of the Hollywood black list. What is most remarkable about the book is how he refuses to cast himself as a hero for hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbull. He is very honest about his reluctance and fear during that shameful period of history. Also compelling is his often contentious relationship with director Stanley Kubrick. The audio version of the book is further enhanced because it is narrated by Douglas’ son Michael (yes, that Michael Douglas, for young’ins who may not be in the know).

Cover of "Lauren Bacall: By Myself"
Cover of Lauren Bacall: By Myself

4. Lauren Bacall: By Myself, by Lauren Bacall – it’s so hard to believe that a woman who came across on screen as so confident and mature, even at the age of nineteen, was actually quite insecure and naïve. Born Betty Bacall and raised by a single mother, she pursued her career at a very young age and found herself a sudden star entangled in a romance with one of the greatest (plus much older and married at the time) Hollywood stars. Everything would seem to have been against a successful marriage, but Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had that for the most part. Bacall is very forthcoming about the lows and highs of the relationship, as well as the many mistakes she made with men after Bogart passed away. Her career has spanned from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the end of the studio system to the present day, which is one of the things that makes the book such an enjoyable read.

5. This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, by Carol Burnett – this is more a collection of anecdotes than a conventional autobiography. Burnett skips back and forth over various periods of her life, from being brought up by her grandmother, to surviving in New York City as an actress, to her classic variety TV show, to the illness and death of her daughter Carrie. My favorite sections were her stories of how The Carol Burnett Show came together and her various triumphs and disasters while trying to break in as an actress. The audio version, narrated by Burnett herself, is extraordinarily touching when she talks about the tragic aspects of her life.